Monday, September 26, 2011

Prisons and the mentally ill

About the only people who are happy that their loved ones are in prison are those of us who have a family member who is mentally ill.  In the 1980s, state hospitals pretty much closed, and with so many mentally ill people put out on the street, it's usually only a matter of time before they break the law and end up in prison.

From the perspective of the family, knowing where our loved one is comes as a relief.  Without treatment we are left to he on the streets?  Being taken advantage of?  Taking his medication?  Hurting anyone?  Dead?   Prison means we don't have to wonder what is happening.

Even if a family wants to civilly commit a mentally ill family member for his own safety, it is nearly impossible in Washington state.  The authorities won't even arrest them because they "might hurt someone"... the standard of proof is that they must be literally in the act when the police respond to an incident.  Prison, where medications can be obtained and are mandatory, where there are suicide cells for people to go to when the self harming urges are just too much and where there is a quality of life in a structured environment, can be a blessing.  It is very structured; it is not exactly a stress free life, but compared to a life on the streets with an untreated mental illness, it is better.  So, for some  families, prison is a respite for our loved ones and a relief  for us.

At a recent behavioral health conference in Washington State,  the Dept. of Corrections (DOC) gave several major presentations.  The fact that DOC is the largest provider of mental health (MH) services in the state came as a shock to most attendees.

Now, the possibility of just tossing the mentally ill into segregation or suicide watch cells, and "forgetting" about them is a big problem in a lot of prison systems, especially if there isn't a family to keep watch over things.  For the most part, the MH treatment in Washington's prisons is better than most, given the system and budget.  I speak from experience as Greg has a mental illness and is currently housed at a special facility for the WA DOC's most mentally ill.  Several of the prisons here have mental health sections, but SOU is where the men with the most difficult cases are housed..  In a system with 18,483 inmates,  SOU has 400 beds.

Due to the salaries of psychologists, counselors, nurses, and other medical staff, and a better ratio of corrections officers to inmates, the COI (cost of incarceration) at SOU is significantly higher than for a prisoner in the general population.  The COI of an inmate in the general prison population in Washington state is about $30,000 per year, and the COI for a standard bed at SOU is about $60,000 per year.  As stated in an excellent article in the Everett Herald Newspaper,  the close security section of SOU called "the Core", has a COI of about $102,000 per man, per year.

Greg spent a year in the "Core", and now has moved to a medium security section; today his COI is significantly less.  Yes, he is in prison but his placement at SOU is a big investment in his mental health treatment, and I'm very grateful for it.

No comments:

Post a Comment